Lisboa (Lisbon) and Belém
From our base of two nights at the clifftops above Praia da Crismina we reluctantly moved on, to see Portugal’s premier city, Lisbon. Finding parking in large towns has previously proven difficult, so we were pleased to find an aire located adjacent to a train station, just three stops out from the centre. We drove the short distance to the district of Belém, about 12 miles from our beach, on the outskirts of the capital, where we were able to park for free. There were posted signs saying no parking for autocaravanas, but there were already 10-12 parked up, so we joined them in defiance. From Belém, it cost just €3 return on the train to Cais de Sodre, the central train station of Lisbon; combined with the free parking, this route into the capital was ideal. Just as we completed our ticket purchase the train arrived at the platform, so our transfer into the city couldn’t have gone smoother.
For a European capital city we had been expecting to encounter swarms of people in the centre, both tourists and locals. Yet the volume of people encountered initially was pleasingly insignificant; it barely felt like a city at all. We walked along the water’s edge, past a utilitarian marina, to reach the Teffeiro do Paco, a good starting point for our visit. There were concentrated pockets of tourists here, along with a long line queuing to visit the tourist office, which we didn’t join.
We walked up through narrow streets to the entrance of the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a castle we had already admired, that overlooked the city centre from its high vantage point. Here we discovered the drawback of a capital city that is also a large port; hordes of tourists gathered in small groups had descended on the city from a recently docked cruise ship. They blocked up the road, the paths, and bolstered the queue to the ticket office to such an extent that it looked to take up the entire square. Between the crowds, tuk-tuk taxis weaved, created waves of people moving sideways, like enthusiastic spectators at a lively gig. After our previous weeks of rural living and tranquil solitude, we had no desire to compete with the cruising multitudes and gave up the idea of visiting the castle. We left again in an indirect way, threading through empty residential side streets, finally weaving our way back to the sea front. Here we enjoyed the playful three-dimensional façade of the Fundação José Saramago.
We meandered around the narrow streets of the old town and the wider boulevards and plazas of the more cosmopolitan area, our eyes and ears absorbing the new city experience. We appreciated the plaza commercial’s impressive facades with few tourists around. We enjoyed watching fountains spout water out against the blue sky with the sun casting a rainbow over the ruined abbey in the background. We passed a large lift that transported queuing tourists to a bridge leading to ancient Roman ruins. Quaint, old-fashioned trams rolled past us on narrow cobbled streets, adding a certain bygone era charm. We watched locals watching us from their tiny cafés. It was certainly pleasant enough to wander through, but there was always a nagging thought that it should, somehow, be slightly better, more polished, than it was.
All large cities are inevitably under constant pressure of refurbishment, redevelopment and rebranding, and Lisbon was no exception. Some areas looked in dire need of remedial works, and many other areas were currently in the process of being repaired. There were, it seemed, many more areas looking dilapidated than completed. This could have been a lasting effect of the financial crash and the consequent austerity issues suffered in Portugal, although it was good to see some works underway now. Perhaps we unluckily arrived at a poor time; paving and road resurfacing contracts may all be administered to begin in November, with it being out of season so fewer tourists, with cooler temperatures to provide ease of working for ground crews. Who knows? But we were left with an overall impression of Lisbon being slightly tired, rundown and somehow smaller than other European capitals we’ve visited.
After we’d explored the main parts of the old city we made the easy return train journey to Belém. Rather than returning to Benny, we continued along the esplanade to explore the impressive sights of this city suburb. We walked directly to the impressive gothic monastery with its beautiful attached cathedral. This was the highlight of the city visit for us; the way the sun lit up the intricately carved doorways and façade. We continued down past the Maritime museum before looking around inside the Modern Art gallery, which housed a collection of Pop art, Cubist and Abstract works from minor, tangential European movements and artists. We proceeded to the stone-built Torre de Belém, set close to the riverside. Here we passed lots of entrepreneurs selling various cocktails, wines and snacks to the passing tourists, and impressively offering free wifi to customers from their bicycles and trolley stalls. From here it was a short walk back past a working marina to Benny, completing our quick overview of the city of Lisbon.
Overall though, we were a little disappointed with Lisbon. This may have been because we still had our ‘beach bum’ heads on and the crowded hustle contrasted starkly with the casual freedom and laziness of our previous few weeks. Or it could have been a consequence of bad timing; arriving at a time when the city was being repaired and upgraded and thus not looking its best, or when it was under siege from a horde of cruise ship invaders. Or maybe we didn’t give it the time it deserved to grow on us. But whatever the reason, we were happy to have seen it, and also happy to move on.
So off we went, over the bridge and south to an even more tranquil beach location at Fonte da Telha. This spot was only twelve miles from Lisbon, but a world away in terms of atmosphere, crowds and tourism – time to relax, again.